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A Great Design Career Starts with Ignoring Money

Money is not a goal, it's a byproduct of success.

I’ve run my own one-person design business for 18 years. Through most of that time, I’ve never allowed money to influence decisions around which clients to work for or what design projects to take on.

I say “most” because there was a time when I did, and quickly learned it was a mistake.

New freelancers will know all too well that when you first start — when you’re building your business up from nothing — there is a time when you have to take every opportunity that comes your way. You work not for interesting design challenges or for fulfilling client collaborations. You work for the paycheck because cashflow and experience are your most pressing needs.

You eventually gain the privilege of choice. You earn the right to occasionally (and then, more frequently) say “no”. You break free of the binding influence of money — at least a little bit.

I urge you, as strongly as I can state, to pounce on this opportunity and never look back. The moment you have an ounce of freedom to remove the direct desire for money from your business and career decisions, take it and run.

The earlier you make this move, the better your design career will get. That’s because money cannot be a goal in and of itself. Money is but a byproduct of success.

Your true goal is to be damn good at what you do. Be a top 10%er. Chasing the biggest paycheck, at the expense of far more important factors, is rarely the quickest path to that goal.

You don’t have to be a starving artist. Quite the opposite. Design can be enormously profitable if you — ironically — forget about money and prioritise doing consistent, good work.

Do good work, money will follow

Recently, at Semi Permanent Auckland, I heard Bron Thomson, CEO and founder of Springload, speak about the early days of her thriving digital design business. In this one sentence, she spoke so much truth about success:

“Money is a good measure of whether or not you’re any good at what you do.”
“If you’re good at running a business, you’ll make money. If you’re good at looking after your team and your clients, and you do good work, you’ll make money.” (Emphasis mine)

See the entire day’s webcast on-demand here (start at 6:43:43 for this part).

Bron is an entrepreneur. But unlike the sad stereotype, she’s not a money-obsessed hustle-or-die work-a-holic. She admits she’s “never been particularly driven by money”. She’s always struggled to find answers to the common business-world questions like “what’s your exit strategy”, or “what’s your vision?”.

“I just want to work with people I really like working with — smart, talented, awesome people. For clients that I really like, who are equally awesome. Doing work that’s challenging and interesting, and that fuels us. And that hopefully leaves the world a tiny bit better off than we found it. Is that an acceptable vision?”

Yes Bron, that is an acceptable vision. In fact, despite not one mention of money or growth, that’s a great recipe for both.

When you make decisions which support the right atmosphere for doing your best work and delivering maximum value to your clients, you are, as a byproduct, carving a path to earning more income.

Doing better work isn’t always about polishing up your design skills. It may be improving your soft-skills or business acumen too. Getting better at storytelling or sales. Your design work is only as good as your weaknesses can support.

Why is this important for a design business?

If our goal is to do the best work possible and let the money follow, then we must prioritise creating the right conditions for producing good design.

You know from experience that you do your best work when you’re genuinely interested in the subject. When your clients are passionate about their ideas and make the effort to be respectful collaborators. You do your best work when there are just enough constraints to inspire creativity, but no unnecessary hurdles to stifle it.

Doing better design work — and consequently delivering maximum value to your clients and the world— is all about the choices you make before the project has even begun. It’s the choice of what to work on in the first place.

I choose projects that are interesting, challenging, or offer variety. Clients that are passionate, good communicators, respectful and honest. Businesses whose missions I believe in, and I’m confident I can help them execute their visions to success.

All of those conditions get a lot more weight than which project might be the most profitable. Because those are the factors that help you do your best work, and doing your best work is the real path to success (and making more money).

Choose to grow value, not chase money

Here are some strategies I use to help make career decisions that direct me towards personal growth over short-term profit.

  1. Charge the same (high) rate for every client, project, or service. Don’t negotiate this rate for anyone. If your time is worth the same amount no matter who you’re working for, there’s suddenly no consideration at all about which projects are more profitable. You’re free to choose work based on more important metrics.
  2. So yes to growth. If a project provides the opportunity to learn a new skill or expand on your knowledge, take it. The experience gained will make you even better on your next project, and increase your value to clients.
  3. Say no to stress. If a client throws up red flags indicating they’re not going to be productive collaborators, walk away. A poor process and frustrating experience is never a recipe for doing your best creative work, no matter how much profit it promises.
  4. Let your schedule dictate your flow. If a project dovetails nicely into a window of availability, make it happen. When it doesn’t, see if there’s wiggle room to postpone the start until you’re available, or turn it down. Overcommitting — and not having time to give each project the attention it deserves — is the death of thoughtful, considered design.

When you remove the direct goal of money from your design career decisions you’ll be surprised to find that you enjoy your projects more frequently, which helps you produce better work and improve your skills faster, satisfying your clients earning you more long-term value and income.

As hard as it may appear, forgoing short-term profit for long term value is always the better business decision. It also happens to accelerate your growth as a designer.

If success as measured by how happy you are — and how much value you contribute to society — then there’s nothing less conducive to success than making money your primary goal. Do excellent design work, help your clients succeed, and money will follow.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.